TUT’s dance and musical theatre department has gone through a major change and now boasts new staff set on taking the baton and bringing about the necessary shift to better the department and empower the students.

Lecturer, writer, director and actor Josias Moleele, the head of the department of the performing arts, Professor Ndwamato George Mugovhani, and lecturer, composer and programme co-ordinator Rostislava Pashkevich got together to speak about their plans for the future.

The word “transformation” up a few times while they got anecdotal about their experiences and vision. But there was also great emphasis to give the students the power to create their own work.

The transformation they speak of started with the staff and it now flows into the curriculum and student intake, which has seen them taking in more black students.

Mugovhani, who is the first head of the amalgamated department of performing arts (formerly the departments were independent), says he found transformation at TUT had been only on paper.

“Dance, vocal art and musical theatre were predominantly Western. When we started planning we asked ourselves, ‘How do you make what you’re teaching relevant?’. We had to liaise with the industry and see what it is doing.

“The point is to redress past imbalances and level the playing field. We are not throwing out what was there, we’re just adding an African and South African idiom to it. We are now looking at featuring musicals of a South African origin, for example,” says the professor, who boasts 34 years of teaching at higher institutions.

But more than just including SA musicals in the curriculum, Moleele believes strongly in also creating new SA work.

He is a former TUT student of the drama department and is of the pre-1994 generation.

“I can remember in my time that oral interpretation was still in Afrikaans. I worked as a junior lecturer in 1996 and left in 1998 after realising I could not feed the students a rosy fantasy of an industry I could only imagine.

“So I went out into the industry. I came back last year and things, right up to the infrastructure, had not changed. Having been in the industry helped me to compare things here with what I have seen.

There is a great need for collaboration of the different disciplines the performing arts department offers. Students need to be versatile when they go into the industry.

“I’m radical in the thinking that we need to shift our mindset. While we do Western musicals we need to acknowledge that we are South Africans and we need to create new South African work.

“It starts with the students believing in SA work. So we are writing new material for the students. Broadway started like that and the rules of scriptwriting also emphasise that you write about what you know. So it’s about more creativity and celebrating our own heritage and writing more stories,” Moleele says.

They are planning to introduce two subjects to the curriculum next year – composition, and directing and scriptwriting.

They hope to take the new work they’re creating abroad to international festivals for future development.

“Each and every country is recognised by its art and we can’t participate in world competitions with reproduced material. We have to bring original work. Art is about new and vibrant things and about establishing and promoting originality,” says Pashkevich.

She has been teaching at TUT for 13 years and her passion for the students is palpable.

She pushes the idea and the importance of creating a vibrant department empowering the students to create their own work and giving them a sense of belief and confidence in themselves, which she feels often lacks in students.

So it’s all about putting the students first. The professor says he lives by the words former lecturer Josef Dupree said to him when he left: “The students must come first.”

More than just empowering the students. Moleele believes in making entrepreneurs out of them, and the future of that, he says, is in arts administration.

“Students leave, but they don’t think they can have their own companies. As an actor you can’t always be begging for work, you have to create it for yourself. If we create more work of our own, then nobody can compete with us,” he says.

As for the future, they’re looking at niche market productions, keeping in mind which audiences they want to attract. And getting schools coming to their campus to see a show is one of their goals.